Times Live Review

By Charl du Plessis 

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Times Live

Counting the cost

If those who brokered South Africa’s arms deals had done so in a completely honest manner, had not accepted a single bribe and always had the best interests of the population at heart, it would have represented a substantial breach of the time-honoured and well-observed best practices of the global arms industry.

We didn’t really stand a chance.

Former ANC MP Andrew Feinstein’s new book, The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade, is a meticulously researched insight into the rampant corruption, noxious dealings and ethical poverty that mark the international arms trade, worth about $1.6-trillion last year.

Feinstein, famous for his forced resignation as an ANC MP over exposing corruption in the South African arms deal, in this book unravels the effect the arms industry has on global affairs, its human cost and its apparent immunity to justice.

Some of the leading figures in the trade make South Africa’s own arms deal beneficiaries look like recalcitrant choirboys.

One example is Prince Bandar of the Saudi royal family, the facilitator of some of the world’s biggest arms deals between Saudi Arabia and the West. He received a £75-million Airbus jet painted in the colours of the Dallas cowboys as a “gift”. This was over and above the £1-billion that was paid into his accounts.

Then there’s the Ukranian-Israeli, Leonid Minin, who became one of despot Liberian president Charles Taylor’s biggest gun-runners, in exchange for blood diamonds. Theatrically, Minin was eventually arrested in an Italian hotel, surrounded by four naked prostitutes, uncut diamonds worth $500000 and $35000 in cold currency.

Aside from examining the lives of such players, Feinstein details the machinations of the global industry; how loopholes in treaties and conventions are navigated by even “legitimate” companies, such as British BAE, which also sold South Africa fighter jets, to win contracts for arms deals.

Paying “commissions” or “consultation fees” to those in power is par for the course. He explains the “revolving door” between governments, defence departments and the arms industry, particularly in the US, still the world’s largest global arms dealer.

“The tragic reality is that arms companies, large and small, and arms dealers and agents get away with corruption and bribery on a massive scale,” writes Feinstein.

In a section of the book aptly titled “Killing Fields”, Feinstein recounts the shocking humanitarian costs of the global arms trade in countries like Somalia, Rwanda, Liberia and Angola.

Rwanda, for instance, spent 70% of its annual state budget on arms in the four years leading to the 1994 genocide that would see between 800000 and 1.174 million people slaughtered and between 100000 and 250000 women raped, writes Feinstein.

Despite the intricate web of connected “shell companies”, legislation and complex international affairs the book deals with, The Shadow World is simply written and coloured with personal observations, a hint of sarcasm and Feinstein’s own single-mindedness in bringing to light rampant corruption in arms dealings.

The Shadow World is not, however, likely to provide light reading on the beach during the holiday season.

Its 103 pages of notes and references are evidence that it is more of an academic endeavour, which deals with a serious subject.

It is clear that Feinstein’s own brush with the arms trade as a member of parliament’s standing committee on public accounts, from which he was eventually forced to resign for pursuing an investigation of our own arms deals, has left him with a single-minded sense of purpose.

“While the fate of the brave and committed anti-corruption officials … is usually to be fired, to leave their jobs in frustration, to face professional marginalisation, even exile, they, like me, cling to the hope that the truth will ultimately out,” Feinstein writes.